Confessions of a Librarian: Janet Trumble
Author: Rachel Wexelbaum
August 30, 2010
1. What made you decide to become a librarian? How did you get into the profession?
I wanted to be a writer ala Stephen King, but a steady paycheck and a love of grammar and books and kids just made teaching English a natural choice. However, I found myself coveting the librarian’s job in ever school I taught in. I was discouraged by tales of the limited number of jobs available and thus hesitated to invest in the certification. A teacher friend of mine who was working on her MLS convinced me to do it. I did, and snagged a job at a new school opening that very next fall. My current principal was opening the school, and while I had no library experience, I guess he knew me well enough to know I could handle it. I’m starting my fourth year now. It’s the best job in the world!
2. As a school librarian, did you have any kind of summer vacation? What happens in the school library while the teachers and students are away?
Yes, we have ten weeks off in the summer, with a few days of training thrown in here and there. The first two years our school hosted summer school, so the library was open. This past year it was used for faculty training.
3. Tell us a little about the town and school where you work. How comfortable do teachers and students feel with being “out” at school? How does this affect your ability and freedom to select LGBTIQIQ resources for your library?
My school is in a diverse, but rather conservative suburb north of Houston. I do know of several gay teachers on our campus, and no, I don’t believe they feel comfortable being “out” at school. It’s still something that is only whispered about on my campus, usually with a lot of brow raising and giggling.
As for students, there are only two who were “out” last year that I know of, but even then it was kind of an everybody-knows-but-nobody-acknowledges-it kind of thing. Apparently some kids are comfortable being “out” on Facebook, but not so much on campus.
To illustrate our school climate, this year our campus participated in National No Name-Calling Week as part of our effort to become a No Place for Hate campus. I noticed that not once was GLSEN mentioned as the sponsor of National No Name-Calling Week. We also hosted author James Howe, but again, the fact that he is gay was a touchy subject with our administrators and meant a lot of tap dancing around the subject when he discussed his gay character Joe Bunch in TOTALLY JOE.
In part that hesitation with talking freely about the character came from an earlier discussion I’d had with one of our administrators. Generally, I’m free to make purchases for our library based on our established selection policy. Our opening day collection was scrutinized then purchased by an ultra-conservative librarian before I was hired. There were clearly gaps when it came to LGBTIQ literature. I set out to fill that gap. When a librarian friend asked me on Facebook to recommend some books, I offered to send her a list. An administrator printed that post and then later called me in to question my judgment. According to the administrator, it was not my place to teach “alternative lifestyles” to our students and said he hoped he would not have to review my lists before I placed orders in the future.
I was furious, as you can imagine. Especially since I had already discussed creating a bookmark with LGBTIQ titles with this administrator and gotten his approval. My guess is my pseudo-activism was making him nervous. He did say at the beginning of the meeting that this was a very difficult subject for him, meaning, I assume, that he knew censoring books with homosexual characters was, in fact, well, censorship. And just FYI, I haven’t changed my book selection process at all.
4. How do you select LGBTIQ resources for the middle school library? Do students, teachers, and counselors ever request titles, or are you the sole selector for LGBTIQ resources where you work?
I’m it! Not that I don’t get requests from all over the place, requests that I always consider and purchase when I can. But they aren’t requesting particular LGBTIQ titles because they don’t even know they exist. My chief sources for identifying and selecting titles are School Library Journal and blogs. Lee Wind’s blog I’m Here; I’m Queer; What the Hell Do I Read was an early and welcomed find. Teenager book reviewer/blogger Brent Taylor’s blog Naughty Book Kitties is one of my favorite go-to sources now, especially for less well-known books. There are a number of librarians who write terrific blogs too, and many of them have written fabulous posts on LGBTIQ lit—“The Gr8 Perhaps” and “Sex in the Library” are just two. Once I become aware of a book, I check the reviews posted on Amazon to make sure it meets the requirements of our selection policy, and often I check out the book from the public library for a quick read if I’m unsure. My public library is part of a larger two-county system and it’s rare that I can’t get something I want. If the book is very controversial, I’m likely to print the reviews and hang onto them, just in case.
5. What are some of your favorite LGBTIQ authors who write YA fiction or non-fiction? How do you draw the line between middle school and high school LGBTIQ literature?
Wow, my favorites. That’s a tough one, because, I’m happy to say, the list of LGBTIQ authors seems to be growing, and quickly. My current favorite would have to be Nick Burd. I was completely taken with his debut novel THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY. I’m also a huge fan of James Howe. I’m so grateful to him for his charming and innocuous TOTALLY JOE (MG, not YA). I could hand that book to a 6th grader with no reservation whatsoever. David Levithan writes these moments that I just can’t get out of my head, and Julie Anne Peters tackles tough subjects in such a sensitive way. Alex Sanchez’s RAINBOW BOYS series is a great entry point for kids just coming out. And finally, I was introduced online to Martin Wilson this summer. He’s such a character and an outspoken advocate for gay rights, and I’m really looking forward to his second novel. Gosh, there are so many—Peter Cameron, Tom Dolby, M.E. Kerr, Malinda Lo. As I look back over my list, it occurs to me that I need to get to know more female authors.
There are many straight authors writing amazing gay characters as well—Cassandra Clare, Ellen Hopkins, Michael Harmon come readily to mind.
As for drawing the line between middle school and high school, that’s a really tough one, perhaps the toughest part of my job. Of course, my jumping off point is always our selection policy, which requires in part that I only purchase books that have been reviewed by at least two sources and that those books meet the recommended grade range. The problem is that not all reviewers agree on the appropriate age range, and oftentimes newer books have not gotten the requisite two reviews, and two, my students don’t fit into such neat little categories. Many of my 8th graders are quite mature and reading well above their grade level.
Honestly, it pretty much all boils down to sex, drugs, alcohol, and language—how much, how graphic, and where it appears in the novel (I realize I’m focusing on fiction, but the same really applies to non-fiction as well). I don’t shy away from subject matter, but the sex, drugs, alcohol, and language are real sticking points for some parents. I’ve only had one real challenge in my three years in the library, and that was over a Markus Zusak book—GETTING THE GIRL. On page 50 or so there’s beer and teenage talk of getting some. I don’t think anyone got much of anything in that novel, as I recall, but the title and the cover (a girl busting out of her almost completely unbuttoned shirt) were red flags to a grandparent of a 6th grader who checked out the book. I was still in training for our library management system when I got the email from an administrator to remove the book. I was too green and scared to fight it at the time.
Covers can be a problem. Sexy scenes early on can be problematic too. K.L Going wrote this awesome little book THE KING OF THE SCREWUPS. In the very first scene the main character’s dad catches him in a compromising situation with a girl, the inciting incident which sets off the plot wherein the main character is sent to live with his gay uncle. The book itself is completely appropriate, but that scene in the opening pages is likely to bring on a challenge eventually. As far as I know, Zusak and Going are straight, but the point remains the same. If reviewers place that book squarely in my grade range, no problem. But if one or more reviewers recommend it for 9th grade up, I have to really think about it. That doesn’t mean I won’t buy it, but it does mean that I have to consider it more carefully than I might otherwise. And covers and opening pages matter.
For the most part, though, I believe kids self-censor. When a book violates their moral code, or is written above their maturity or reading level, they either don’t check it out, or they return it to me, sometimes even pointing out the offending passages. We just smile, say okay, help them choose something “appropriate” and reshelve the book.
If I think I can defend a book, I buy it. When I don’t think I can, I make liberal use of inter-library loans. Many of our high school librarians have built very nice LGBTIQ collections and they are generally very generous with their books. Sometimes kids request them, sometimes I make suggestions. But if I have to request a book more than a couple times, I’m very likely to just go ahead and purchase it.
6. Depending on your school’s climate, what can you do to promote LGBTIQ resources from your library’s collection? Have parents, teachers, administrators or others ever complained about the presence of those resources?
There has been some eye-rolling, some whispering, but no outright complaints aside from the incident with the administrator that I mentioned earlier. In fact, many of the teachers in our building are thrilled that we have such a diverse collection. A few have been surprised, however, but not indignant. I’ve had more trouble with my AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH poster over the climate change section than with my LGBTIQ collection. Still, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Fortunately, our director of library services is very much an advocate for freedom of information. As long as I follow selection policy, I’m not too worried about challenges. At this point our district knows better than to censor on the basis of homosexuality. I won’t go into that, but the issue has arisen before.
As for promoting my collection, I display books everywhere in the library—on the countertops, the shelves, the circulation desk. I display LGBTIQ books just like any other. I also have a Readers’ Advisory board with bookmarks that list books with like themes—The Pain of War, Tales of Horror, Kissing by the Book, and Characters In and Out. Plus, I’m always recommending good books to kids, and that includes books with gay characters. I’d really like to do more this year as we try to address bullying on our campus in a more proactive and meaningful way. I think librarians are uniquely position to take a leading role in such initiatives. We work with all the kids in a school and we are not in a disciplinarian position. We’re discussing doing something similar to MTV’s IF YOU REALLY KNEW ME program. The bottom line is, kids who spend much time in the library know I’m gay friendly and that has led to some very good discussions.
7. What advice do you have for K-12 librarians who would like to select LGBTIQ resources for their collections? What are your favorite selection aids for LGBTIQ materials? How do you acquire your LGBTIQ titles?
There are lots of librarians and teachers out there doing the legwork for you. Find some bloggers that you love and follow them. I also use Google Alerts—“LGBT YA lit” and “LGBT children’s lit”—to help me locate those posts and articles. And don’t be afraid to serve the needs of kids over the paranoia of adults. I do believe that we are coming to a place where referring to LGBTIQ lit as “inappropriate” will be so politically incorrect that it will become a near non-issue. Libraries should be leading the way in fighting narrow-mindedness and hate, and I believe they are.
I acquire almost all my books through two vendors—one with a closed pre-bound list (my go-to source first) and one with an open list. I’ve built a great relationship with each of my sales representatives. They not only provide excellent service and a quality product, but they’re terrific people.
8. Is your school district experiencing the budget crises that are affecting many other public schools in the country? How is this affecting your ability to develop the library collection? Has there been resistance from administration to order new titles in “controversial” subject areas due to budget problems?
We are fortunate in Texas that we haven’t felt the recession quite so keenly as other states have. Still, I believe our district has been operating in the red for several years now, tapping into a reserve fund to maintain status quo. There have been budget cuts, but they haven’t affected my budget significantly and I continue to purchase books as I always have.
9. Are any teachers or students where you work using EReaders at the moment? Are there any EBook collections for K-12 at the moment, and do those collections include any LGBTIQIQ EBooks for this age group?
I do not have an EReader, although I would be interested in purchasing some down the road. I can’t really speak to anyone’s EBook collections.
10. Are you yourself an EBook reader? If budget allowed, would you subscribe to any EBook collections for the junior high school students?
I’m not an EBook reader. I still enjoy hauling around the bound versions. For me, an EBook reader would just take some of the fun out of the experience, although I have enjoyed audio books, which allow me to read when my hands and/or eyes are otherwise occupied—i.e. when I’m driving or walking. An EBook doesn’t fill that void, and thus is a redundancy for me that I just haven’t gotten excited about.
11. If you ever had to sell your personal book collection, what is the ONE LGBTIQ title that you would keep, and perhaps pass on to someone of the next generation?
Only one? That’s not fair! And since I’ve never been known to toe the proverbial line, I’m going to choose two: James Howe’s TOTALLY JOE for the younger demographic and Nick Burd’s THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY for the older kids. Did I mention how much I love those two books?